Futsal Fever - Coming in from the Cold
The 3rd FIFA Indoor Football World Championship is the main event on the FIFA calendar for the second half of 1996. Sixteen teams will contest the crystal trophy in the two weeks of matches in Spain, with Brazil going for a hat-trick.
With boards or without boards? Off the wall or out of play? That was the basic question central to FIFA's plans for a world indoor football championship in the 1980's.
The strong pro-boards lobby pointed to the success of the indoor game especially in the United States, where indoor leagues at that time were outstripping the classic outdoor game in terms of public appeal. And most people had grown up playing the indoor game by bouncing the ball (and bodies!) off the walls of gymnasiums and improvised courts.
But there was a faction within FIFA of a different opinion. The precedent of another sport comparable in many ways to football, was often cited as a warning: handball, some decades ago a strictly outdoors sport played with skill and pace and featuring midfield as well as attack, was widely felt to have lost much of its character when transformed to an almost exclusively indoor game, with little or none of its earlier strategies and a concentration of legs and arms around the edge of the goal area.
That, said the football specialists, is not what we want to happen to football. If we are going indoors, then we want to try to take outdoor football with us, and make the indoor game a reduced version of the 11-a-side standard, rather than create an entirely different sport.
Fundamental to this thinking was to spurn the non-stop action of boards, and to retain the concept of the ball going out of play, over the touchlines or behind the goal. Players could no more beat an opponent by playing a one-two with the wall, than they could on a grass field. The need to keep the ball in play compelled players to be more accurate in their passing. And of course the risk of injury was reduced.
But while the first experiments, especially in Budapest in 1986, were not entirely conclusive, the move to formalise indoor football's status in the global football movement soon acquired formidable impetus.
1989: the turning point
The first World Indoor Championship, in the Netherlands in January 1989, was the decisive turning point. Carrying as it did the stamp of authority as a FIFA event, it laid down the new standards for 5-a-side football and sent out the message : If you want to win an Indoor Football World Cup, then play to FIFA rules.
The established leagues in North America opted to continue with their own rules, as was their right. But in Europe and elsewhere, the majority swung behind FIFA.
As some teams struggled a little in Holland in 1989 to adjust to the new laws, two teams dominated : the home side, who already had a very active national indoor league and who had completed an intensive training programme for the big event on home ground as part of the Dutch Football Association's 100th anniversary programme, and Brazil, who once again capitalised on their incomparable natural football talent.
Almost inevitably, these two teams met in the final in the cavernous Ahoy Hall in Rotterdam, with the South Americans spoiling the Dutch party by lifting the new trophy with a narrow 2-1 win.
1992: Some adjustments
To help indoor football to take firm root, and true to FIFA's policy of moving world championships from continent to continent, it was decided to go to Asia for the second edition, in 1992. Hong Kong offered a perfect venue in the Coliseum, a superb sports arena on the Kowloon waterfront, and the Hong Kong FA engaged the Dutch 1989 captain, Vic Hermans, as their indoor team coach to ensure they could hold their own against the 15 visiting teams.
The Hong Kong tournament proved what a long way Futsal had already come since the inaugural event in 1989. The matches were more skilful, more exciting, but above all more evenly balanced. And that vital ingredient, goals, was far from lacking. The goals rained in from all angles, a total of 307 in 40 matches, nearly half as many again as in 1989. Better strikers? Poorer goalkeepers? Certainly not the latter. Indeed, the goalies were the stars of the 1992 tournament.
More responsible for the entertainment value of the second Championship were a few adjustments in the rules, not only the use of the new backpass rule but especially the introduction of effective playing time. Stoppages in 1989 had caused too much action time to be lost, but now time-wasting was eliminated - even if it meant some matches lasting as long as 96 minutes in order to get 40 minutes of real play (the average length was 75 minutes).
There will be some more innovations in Spain, not only in the adoption of the name "Futsal" as the international designation for indoor / 5-a-side football, but also in the rules to help keep the game going. And the referees (games are controlled by one referee and one assistant) will all be Futsal specialists.
But while Futsal is still relatively new at the world level, Spain 96 is no longer in the preliminary experimental stage as far as the rules and regulations are concerned. Any more rule changes are likely to be only marginal. More fascinating will be to see how the game has spread in the past four years, and whether anyone can match the Brazilians at their new game.
The strongest challenge will most likely come again from Europe, led no doubt by Spain, current top of the heap after winning the European title in home ground last year. But why should other continents not have closed the gap, as in 11-a-side football?
Can Iran, whom Spain beat 9-6 in a memorable bronze medal match in 1992, again produce the brilliant individual skills that were such a feature of the Hong Kong finals? Might the US, well beaten in the Hong Kong final, go one better this time?
And what about Africa? There, too, it is surely only a matter of time before they join the world Futsal elite.
The attraction of indoor football lies in its emphasis on speed, technique and the element of surprise, and the way in which the situation can change dramatically within seconds. It has its own special delights, and is developing its own stars among the several million regular players active in well over fifty countries worldwide.
As FIFA General Secretary Sepp Blatter wrote in the introduction to the 1989 Technical Report, indoor football is an important component in the promotion of up and coming players. Historically, the indoor game has traditionally been more for players than for spectators, recreational rather than competitive.
But now it has its own world championship to help promote itself. Spain 1996 promises to be a lot of fun - for the fans as well as for the players.